Nitish Kumar
Photo: PTI

Nitish has broken BJP’s incisors, but faces giant barriers in race to be PM

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As soon as Nitish Kumar announced the JD(U)’s divorce from the BJP and its remarriage with the RJD, the liberal-Left intelligentsia, which was desperately fighting to keep pessimism out of doors, found their hearts lighting up with a new hope.

To begin with, at least someone had given the BJP “the taste of its own medicine”! – they said. From the way the BJP had preyed upon MLAs from the other parties to seize power after losing elections in Karnataka, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur and Maharashtra it was looking as though there would be no stopping the political cannibal wolfing down all of India. But Nitish Kumar had broken its incisors! The BJP does have gigantic resources to restore its broken incisors and resume looking for prey again, of course, but at least for the time being, Nitish had left it wounded.

Also read: Nitish severed ties with NDA to save his secular image, JD(U) from ruin

Secondly, the BJP had been struck at the jaws in the Hindi heartland which was supposed to be its natural habitat. And of all the states in the Hindi heartland, in Bihar, which was famous for being the nerve centre of national political movements in both colonial and postcolonial India.

Nitish needs to go beyond humble self

It is hardly surprising that when the liberal-Left intelligentsia weighs all these factors, Nitish Kumar in their eyes emerges as one of the frontline opposition candidates to challenge Narendra Modi in 2024. Nitish’s remark to the media—“I am not a claimant to the prime minister’s post. But those who came (to power) in 2014 may have to think whether they will be there in 2024 or not”—has only provided more fuel to the expectations.

Will Nitish beat other candidates in the opposition to become their challenger to Modi? He has to cross several hurdles to reach there.

One, he would not propose his name. That is not his character. He would wait for others to propose his name. And that might not happen.

That is what happened in the early 2010s. He won a huge majority at the Assembly elections in 2010. He was at the peak of his popularity across the nation as the man who turned round a god-forsaken Bihar. Despite being in alliance with the BJP whose emerging icon was Narendra Modi, he openly opposed him and his brand of aggressive Hindutva. In the build-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha poll Nitish had emerged as the strongest challenger to Modi in public perception.

But he did not go to other parties to promote his candidature. The other parties did not come to him. And he remained confined to the politics of Bihar.

The same thing might happen this time too. There are too many candidates in the opposition vying for the prime minister’s post this time, as they were in in 2014 or 2019. Will they agree to have Nitish as their consensual candidate?

More rivals for PM post likely

A speculation doing the rounds is that Rahul Gandhi does not want himself or Priyanka Vadra to become the party president. He wants someone from outside the Gandhi family to take the office. If that is going to be the case, say speculators, Rahul might even agree to have a non-Congress candidate as the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate.

That is too many ifs. But even if that happens, parties like the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which have carved their political estates on what was once a Congress hacienda and are still engaged in battles with the party over who are true or false vanguards of left-of-the-centre politics, might shoot down the proposal. After all, Mamata Banerjee and K Chandrasekhar Rao are claimants to the prime ministerial candidature themselves.

Hope in ‘Janata Dal parivar’

Two, Nitish might find it easier to find unanimity on his name among the parties that came out of the Ram Manohar Lohia-led socialist movement, broadly called the ‘Janata Dal parivar’. These parties include the JD(U), the RJD, the Janata Dal (Secular), the Samajwadi Party and the Indian National Lok Dal (INLD). Former prime minister and JD(S) president H D Deve Gowda has expressed hope of the “Janata Dal parivar” emerging as a political alternative to the BJP.

“I’ve been watching the developments in Bihar. It made me think of the days when the Janata Dal parivar was under one roof. It gave three PMs. I’m in my advanced years, but if the younger generation decides, it can offer a good alternative,” he said in a tweet.

After Modi came to power in 2014, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who was then the president of the Samajwadi Party, and Deve Gowda had tried for months to reunite the “Janata Dal parivar” to create an alternative to the BJP under “ek jhanda, ek nishan (one flag, one election symbol).” But their efforts failed.

The parties might not unite. However, as far as unanimity among these parties on Nitish’s name as prime ministerial candidate is concerned, that is in the realm of possibility. The RJD is already with him. Deve Gowda has already endorsed him. The INLD will have no problem accepting him as they have a marginal presence and no partisan stake in the prime ministerial race. The Samajwadi Party too is expected to endorse him as its leader Akhilesh Yadav wants to be chief minister again and is not in the prime ministerial race.

Also read: Nitish Kumar is a wily politician; is there a counter to his gambit?

However, the big question is: can the unanimity among the parties of the Janata parivar on his name push the other parties in the opposition to endorse him too? Doubtful.

How far will alliances work?

Three, even if we assume that all opposition parties agree on his name, what kind of arrangement would it be? Will it be an alliance with a manifesto and minimum agreed programme? Or will some parties support the leader from outside, as the Congress had done to several prime ministers in the past?

If the latter is the case, Nitish will never agree to be the prime ministerial candidate. For he is very clear in his mind that he will not lead a government with the “support from outside” of one or more larger parties. Because he has seen what happened to Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. The parties supporting them from outside withdrew their support and their governments fell. He does not want to lead a government that lasts at the mercy of parties supporting from outside and only for a short period.

Also read: Bihar puts spoke in the wheel as BJP juggernaut rolls from state to state

Now, it does not seem possible that all opposition parties will come together to form a single alliance. As of now, at least two or three alliances are being explored. Assuming that Nitish gets elected as a member of one of the alliances and is elected as its leader in the Lok Sabha and he stakes claim to form the government. The other alliances also extend support to him, but from outside. Can such an arrangement be stable? Will Nitish agree to be the prime minister under such an arrangement? The answer is no.

(The writer is an independent journalist and the author of ‘Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar’ and ‘The Battle for Bihar’)  

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)

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